Last night I finished the final Sherlock Holmes full length novel, The Valley of Fear. When I was a boy I read many of the Sherlock Holmes Shorts but never a full length novel and never as an adult. Last year I read two collections of shorts, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and The Return of Sherlock Holmes. Since spring break I have read the four novels. The process has been, to say the least, enlightening.
When I read a classic novel, whether it is Dostoevsky, Dickens or Doyle I read as a writer admiring the greatness of another writer. I do enjoy these stories, but more than that to learn from them. From Doyle I have observed several trends.
1. Character is not something independent of plot. One of the great discussions I often encounter is which is more important—plot or character. Doyle deftly uses the plot to unwrap the character. It is in the process of chasing clues that we learn of Holmes OCD-like knowledge of every kind of cigar available in London and exactly what kind of ash it leaves. Without the plot and the details of the story we would not have knowledge of many of Holmes curiosities. Doyle does not spend a chapter telling us about Holmes’ obsession with tobacco, but unpacks it in one of the clues. This has the benefit of wanting us readers wondering what other mysterious and compulsive tendencies this man has which are not relevant to the case at hand.
2. Doyle is not afraid of the flashback. In their own way each of the four novels uses extensive use of flashback storytelling. One story has the flashback in the English countryside, another goes back to the American West, the other to the far-flung British Empire in the East, and the last one involves American coal mines. Doyle uses this device to take the reader far away from London’s smog, squalor and crime to other parts of the world. Since all the flashbacks are distant–years back, they serve to provide historical gravitas to the whole story. Holmes work of consultant detective is not just the here and now—but part of a longer story. The flashback gives the characters and the plot a depth which would be missing in a straight-line chronology.
3. Another thing I’ve noticed, especially in a Baskervilles or Fear is how much Holmes is “off-screen.” Dr. Watson has far more face time than the title character, as well as the benefit of being the narrator. The special character of Holmes is developed carefully and then held at a distance. I compare this to the trend in most stories—Dickens for example, and almost all modern writers, of having the main character in virtually every scene and on every page. I wonder if it reflects a lack of ego on Doyle’s part in that his own personality flows through with the understanding that the world is in action even when he is not present. How many of us live as if nothing important occurs when we are not around? The technique works with Holmes powerfully as one who picks up the clues other shave left behind.
4. I found it interesting how Doyle taps into ‘secret’ groups or ‘conspiracy’ ideals in his plot development. In Scarlet, Doyle spends considering time painting the most negative possible picture on early Mormons. Indeed, Brigham Young himself serves as a villain. The secret society in Fear is clearly a reference to the Freemasons. Added to this is the feeling of conspiracy in Baskervilles and the secret oath out in Four and we end up with a good healthy dose of playing on preconceived fears, notions, and prejudices. No wonder the novels did so well.
5. One more observation—and it is a quick one. Doyle is equally effective at storytelling when he doesn’t have the archenemy Moriarty around. Most of the Holmes canon does not include Moriarty. Too often storytellers automatically gravitate toward building the nemesis without considering the power of their major character to carry the story. It weakens our characters when they cannot stand on their own. True, every story has some kind of conflict/enemy/opponent but it is not the ultimate enemy.